Piling on the Sunshine: New measures would make more spending information publicly available

If, as Judge Louis Brandeis famously stated, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant”, the Oklahoma Legislature seems to be on a bit of a cleaning frenzy. Several bills making their way through the legislative process this session HB 3422, SB 1633 and HB 3253 – would expand the amount of information on public expenditures that is made available online to the public.

The measures all build on the 2007 Taxpayer Transparency Act, authored by Sen. Randy Brogdon, which led to the state’s OpenBooks website. The site makes available data on expenditures by each state agency by year and purpose, including detailed payroll and vendor information. OpenBooks also provides information on individuals and businesses who claimed tax credits against the income tax (see our post on this subject).

HB 3422, dubbed Open Books 2.0, expands directly on the Taxpayer Transparency Act by aiming to make available more information in a more user-friendly format. The bill’s author, Ken Miller, asserts that:

Over the past few years we’ve put in place tools that make our state government more accountable to the taxpayers who fund its operation. Open Books 2.0 will continue our progress by revealing unprecedented transparency on government spending.

The bill:

  • requires that all purchases made with state funds be disclosed on the online database, regardless of the amount of the expenditure
  • requires that each individual expenditure be listed separately instead of being lumped together as one purchase (…)
  • requires that the information provided on the website be searchable, either by using the name of the recipient, the entity making the purchase, or the date of the expenditure
  • requires that the data provided on the website be in a format in which users can easily export it into a separate document
  • requires that the Office of State Finance create an online archive database where users can access data older than 18 months

HB 3422 was amended in the House to include new language on tax credits to require that the names and addresses of taxpayers who claim income tax credits be collected and published online (the Earned Income Tax Credit and a few others would be exempt). The bill passed the House unanimously and goes to the Senate.

The other two bills – SB 1633 by Sen. Brogdon and HB 3253 by Rep. Blackwell, both known as the School District Transparency Act – would apply the principles of the Taxpayer Transparency Act to school districts. The bills would task the State Department of Education with creating a website, by the start of 2011,  that shows itemized expenditures for each school district, including information on the amount of funds expended on each purchase, type of transaction, and descriptive purchase of the funding action or expenditure. Both these measures, supported by everyone from the Oklahoma Education Association to Oklahomans for Responsible Government, also won unanimous passage in their houses of origin on their way through the legislative process.

As the unanimous votes suggest, government transparency is a rallying cry that generates broad and bipartisan  support. Similarly, at the federal level, then-Senator Barack Obama and Senator Tom Coburn famously joined together to author the Federal Funding Accountability and Accountability Act of 2006. However, the transparency movement does have its skeptics. In an interesting article in The American Prospect, editor Mark Schmitt suggests that the campaign to publicize government spending in ever-greater detail is rooted in and further feeds a sense of cynicism and distrust of government:

This brand of micro-transparency is based on an assumption of corruption and waste. A blizzard of tiny data points, without context, does not improve government or help citizens make decisions… At a time of economic and fiscal crisis, when states have to make bigger decisions about spending cuts and tax increases, a focus on small items, along with the assumption that government is wasteful and corrupt, hardly increases citizens’ ability to think about the choices ahead.

Schmitt makes some good points about the dangers of data, shed of context, being brandished as weapons in a game of “gotcha”.   Ultimately, however, knowing how and where public dollars are being spent helps promotes accountability and healthy scrutiny of public officials, and provides part of the basis for the truly vital discussions of  whether those dollars are being wasted or spent efficiently. To those ends, the measures being considered this session are likely to be further steps in the right direction.


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

One thought on “Piling on the Sunshine: New measures would make more spending information publicly available

  1. While filing late taxes is often associated with big fines and late fees, there’s much more to it than that!

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